The Most Adaptive Creature on the Planet
The scope of human programmability is astounding. People have figured out how to live in tropical jungles and arctic regions. People have developed cultures where a deity requires the ceremonial sacrifice of incredible numbers of human beings as well as cultures where the taking of even one life is considered wrong. The variations of cultures and norms for this one creature across the globe and throughout history is breathtaking. The Egyptians with ancient tools and methods expended massive amounts of money and man power to build the pyramids. The Chinese at the cost of thousands of lives built the great wall. The Inca built an enormous civilization high in the mountains with intricate stone work that survives in tact to this day. Thousands of tribes and people developed unique yet interconnected ways of relating to one another in groups, ways of raising children, ways of establishing communal harmony and order, ways of enforcing these norms, ways of cooking, ways of praying, ways of securing resources, ways of making sense of the earth, the waters and the sky. One creature has done this all so successfully as to dominate the planet in a way like no other creature.
The Self as a Tool of Dominion
There is no doubt that the ability to develop a conscious self in connection with a collective culture is our most astounding capacity as a species. We are not the strongest creature nor the most numerous creature on the planet, yet we are the most powerful creature as a group that we know. Our power comes from our ability to become conscious selves with wills in deeply interconnected community and to have those communities achieve things together. Even though we are short lived creatures, as individuals most of us lasting less than 100 years, we establish communities and civilizations that last centuries, overpowering their competitors and re-creating the planet in ways to perpetuate our dominion. Whether or not you agree that humanity was given dominion over this planet as the book of Genesis states it has surely taken it.
One Self at a Time
The building blocks of this world dominating species is the ability of each sub-unit to perpetuate its culture to every new addition to the race. The process of developing a self-conscious self is indistinguishable from the process of assimilating a culture. Each infant brought into our world assimilates multiple layers of culture unintentionally. There is a family culture to assimilate, complete with competing interests at that most basic level, there is a neighborhood culture, an ethnic culture, a national culture, and various other tribal cultures sometimes in our world involving sports and other interests. All of this assimilated into an individual who will bring with their own unique mix of various cultures their own individual application of all of those cultures, at the same time recognizable as part of those cultures as well as distinct from every other individual within those cultures.
In 2011 news broke in Toronto about a couple who refused to disclose the sex of their third child named Storm. Their decision launched a brief but fierce media storm about the morality of this decision. It is a wonderful illustration of the interplay between desire, intentionality and humanity’s innate ability to enculturate and assimilate.
Gender identity is a hot topic in our civilization’s current cultural context. As a culture new moral ideas continue to evolve and become attractive to certain subgroups and together with intentionality this couple has decided to apply them to the life of their third child.
Within this hotly debated social experiment are some interesting assumptions. Can they through selective disclosure allow a child to realize some more authentic gender experience? What do we mean by “authentic” in such a statement?
Families and groups have always practiced selective disclosure as a means of intentionally shaping their children. Every family and culture have things they do and don’t talk about and they do so in order to pursue a cultural outcome for their children and their culture’s future.
What strikes me about this couple’s small social experiment is out naive they seem to be regarding our ability to absorb and assimilate culture. The parents, caretakers, siblings and medical professionals will at some point observe the anatomical gender attributes of the child. Will they not all be imprinting culture upon the child whether or not they know it?
Culture and Will Emerge Together
We communicate and absorb all of the layers of our culture unintentionally. Infants absorb and assimilate it before they have a conscious self to realize they are doing it. After they develop a conscious self they will unintentionally absorb their new cultures at a breathtaking pace, all while also expressing and asserting what we call a will.
Modern brain scientists are expressing skepticism as to the existence of a will, and when we get to the point of discussing the existence (ontology) of the thing we call a will we’ll get to that question. At this point I’d like to simply assume we can talk about the human desire as an experience we all share.
Everyone who cares for a child, or even an intelligent animal will recognize what we call a will. We don’t need to be self-conscious to want things and we quickly develop the capacity to pursue those things and secure them. Our desire for things is pre-conscious and so I think we can safely say is also sub-conscious even after we develop a conscious self. We are wired to pursue the things we need for biological survival as well as other things we simply want for reasons we understand or not.
Getting Things from Others
The new four month old puppy in my home is an amazing creature. This puppy, though it eights only five pounds, and has a brain far smaller and less developed than any of the humans that occupy this space has managed to secure for itself food, shelter, protection, and free medical care while offering very little in terms of practical contribution to the household. It has a will, often in conflict with the wills of our home’s two legged inhabitants, and through a combination of wooing and asserting frequently manages to not only exert that will but secure what it wants from the dominant, two legged creatures.
This five pound creature cannot take credit for most of this creature’s capacity for getting from my family what it wants and needs. People have created this pooch over thousands of years. Thousands of generations of dog have been selectively bred to produce a creature with beautiful long fur, large eyes, small size and a personality that is compatible with human beings. This four month old dog has inherited these attributes and now employs them in the context of my family to get what it wants. If this is true of dogs, it is even more true of human beings.
While human infants have not been bred with the intentionality of a Shih Tzu-Maltese, we are born with an incredible capacity for managing the matrix of will and cultural assimilation. Both must happen together for the system to work and for our species to continue it’s global dominance.
Infants want and need things, they are far more helpless than even our four month old puppy, and they are able to secure willful sacrifice from their adult hosts. Good parents go to incredible lengths to provide for the helpless child and to give that child their best. Throughout the process, both intentionally and unintentionally they play out an ongoing exchange of expression of will and cultural assimilation. The infant must assimilate the culture to communicate its will to the hosts and the hosts imprint on the infant their culture as an assertion of will upon the child. Both the parent and the child must learn to see what the other wants even without words. We learn to read each other’s minds.
Brain scientists in exploring our capacity as a species to read each others minds. We learn to read each other’s thoughts, intentions, and desires as a species even when other giving conflicting signals. We in fact have the capacity to read another’s mind even when they are trying to mask their thoughts or even when the person who has the desire is not even conscious of their own will. We have the capacity to know each other’s mind better than a person’s own mind. This is astounding but completely common. A parent or care giver regularly knows the mind of a child even if the child does not.
This capacity not only is in play with parenting but is in fact central to our capacity for community itself. We need to know each other’s minds in order to live together and develop culture and civilization. This capacity is in fact hard wired into our brains.
Have you ever wondered why you wince when you see someone else being punched? After all, it’s not you who is taking a beating but you copy their reaction. Neuroscientists have been studying the neural basis of this social copying phenomenon following the discovery of brain cells, aptly named “mirror neurons,” that appear to fire in sympathy when watching other people’s actions. Mirror neurons can be found in the cortical regions of the brain, toward the front and top of the head, in an area known as the supplementary motor area, which is active during the planning and execution of movements.
The discovery of mirror neurons spread through the academic community like wildfire. Some likened their discovery as having the same impact in neuroscience as unravelling the structure of DNA had in biology. This was because mirror neurons seemed to provide a way of knowing other people’s goals and intentions. Mirror neurons operate like a direct link between minds, in the same way that computers can be networked so that when I type a sentence on my laptop, it will appear on your screen.
If my mirror neurons fire when watching someone else’s actions, then, because my actions are already linked to my own mind, I simply have to know what is on my mind to know what you are thinking. As we noted earlier, if you smile and I automatically smile back at you, this triggers happy thoughts in me as well as a good feeling. By mirroring your behavior, I can directly experience the emotional state that you are experiencing. When we mimic someone else’s expression with our own muscles, we can readily access the same emotion that is usually responsible for generating that expression. This may be why people who have their own facial muscles temporarily paralyzed following a Botox injection to remove wrinkles are not as good at reading other people’s emotional expressions because they are unable to copy them.
Hood, Bruce (2012-04-25). The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity (pp. 64-65). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
Parents and care givers read the minds of their children. Children read the minds of their parents. Movie watches read the minds, and experience the emotions of the stories the actors or drawings display on the screen. We are all wired to do this together.
Through this cacophony of communication, effortlessly handled by our brains, communal and individual wills are exerting themselves, seeking what they want, pursuing what they need, looking for what pleases them the most.